Just like I did with three AFC teams, I want to look at three teams from the National Football Conference who finished last season with eight or less wins, but will finish this season with nine or more.
1. Dallas Cowboys
I think everybody expects the Cowboys to bounce back from their 4-12 season last year, one in which injuries belittled them from the start. Dez Bryant broke his foot in week 1 against the Giants, and Tony Romo went down the following week in Philadelphia with a clavicle injury. Their season was pretty much over right then and there, even though Romo and Bryant did end up playing some games later in the season. This year, I expect both to stay healthy and the Cowboys to battle for the NFC East title in a much improved division.
The Cowboys certainly have question marks on defense, but there’s no question that this offense will be one of the best in the league if they stay healthy. Romo underwent a procedure to strengthen and protect his left clavicle, and more importantly, he hasn’t had a back issue in a couple years. Most importantly, though, is the fact that the Cowboys drafted Running Back Ezekiel Elliott with the 4th pick in the draft. This will help take stress off the Cowboys’ QB and ideally open up the passing game significantly, something we saw in 2014 when DeMarco Murray exploded for over 1,800 rushing yards. Bryant underwent another foot procedure in January, and he’s expected to be fully healthy going into training camp at the end of July. Luckily for Dallas, they have one of the youngest and healthiest offensive lines in the league, and they will be the ones protecting Romo and opening running lanes for the rookie out of Ohio State.
Accompanied by wide receivers Cole Beasley, Brice Butler and Terrance Williams, Dallas’ offense should return to their 2014 style of play that took stress off of their mediocre defense and led them to a 12-4 playoff season. Without Romo and Bryant for most of the season, Dallas finished 31st in points scored and 22nd in yards recorded in the NFL last season. In 2014, they finished 5th and 7th in those categories respectively. I predict they’ll finish in the top 10 in both categories again this season.
About that defense. Dallas’ pass rush, or lack thereof, has been a problem for years. Presumably, it’s not going to get better quick with multiple suspensions sidelining key players in their front seven; both DeMarcus Lawrence and Randy Gregory are sidelined for the first four weeks, and Rolando McClain will sit out the first 10. Dallas addressed their defensive line in the offseason by drafting DT Maliek Collins and DE Charles Tapper in the third and fourth round respectively. They also snagged DT Cedric Thornton from PHI to help out the inexperienced group of Tyrone Crawford, Ryan Russell and Benson Mayowa. I think this group will surprise some people, and when Lawrence and Gregory come back in week 5, the Cowboys may actually have a formidable pass rush.
Behind them, and more worrisome, is a thin linebacking core. Sean Lee has yet to play a full season in Dallas, but he came close last year (14 games) in his switch to weakside linebacker. He looked comfortable there, and although he is an absolute beast in the middle, the Cowboys feel good about his durability and effectiveness playing on the outside. I think the Cowboys’ linebackers are their biggest concern heading into 2016, but luckily, I think they will get a lot of help in the passing game from their secondary. Second-year pro Byron Jones is a stud, and he’ll finally play safety full time next to Barry Church. Orlando Scandrick is back after missing 2015 with an injury, and he was arguably the Cowboys’ best defender in 2014. The question marks in the secondary lie with cornerbacks Brandon Carr and Morris Claiborne, who have yet to meet expectations in Dallas. Carr may never meet the expectations his monster contract calls for, and Claiborne certainly has been underwhelming considering Dallas traded into the no. 6 spot for him in the 2012 draft. I think Claiborne will finally make a leap next season and him and Jones alone will help Dallas’ turnover differential – something they were the worst in the league in doing last season (-22).
To sum, I think Dallas’ offense is going to be substantially improved from last season; that’s easy to say. But I am going out on a limb and saying that this defense will shock people under coordinator Rod Marinelli, and they will force enough turnovers to allow Dallas’ offense to impose their will on opposing defenses all season long. They will finish with nine or more wins and return to the postseason.
2. New York Giants
The Giants are another NFC East team I expect to have a big bounce back year. The Giants are coming off three consecutive losing seasons (6-10, 6-10, 7-9) for the first time since the 1978-1980 seasons. I expect that to change this season under new head coach Ben McAdoo.
The Giants’ offense should be explosive. Their offensive line has gotten a lot of slack over the past few years, and rightfully so, but they showed improvements last season. I expect their young guys up front to protect the immobile but indestructible Eli Manning more so than in recent years. Manning hasn’t missed a Giants’ start in his career, and I think he’ll have his best receiving core to date to work with this season. Odell Beckham is going into his third year, and he’s already made a name of himself – and not just because of his ridiculous one-handed catch in his rookie year. He can pretty much do it all: Beckham has caught over 90 passes, over 1,300 yards and 12 or more touchdowns in his first two seasons, and he hasn’t even played a full 16 games yet. Now, he’s going to have some dangerous weapons joining in on the fun. The Giants are getting once fan favorite Victor Cruz back, and they drafted Oklahoma receiver Sterling Shepard in this year’s draft. Cruz is finally healthy, and Shepard is getting a ton of hype. Shepard, Cruz and Beckham are in line to set up Eli for another monster year throwing the football. Manning threw 35 touchdowns last season, the most in his career. I think he can surpass that this year.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Giants desperately needed help and spent the big bucks to get it. They signed free agent DE Olivier Vernon and DT Damon Harrison for a combined $76.5 million dollars guaranteed. Aside from them, the Giants also have Jason Pierre-Paul, Jonathan Hankins, and 2015 third-round pick Owamagbe Odighizuwa to form one of the best defensive fronts in football next season. They also dished out $28 million guaranteed to CB Janoris Jenkins. The Giants’ defense allowed 442 points last season, their most allowed since 1966. That should change, and the Giants will get back to their winning ways by attacking the QB in 2016.
Side note: The Giants have been one of the unhealthiest teams in football in recent years. If they can stay relatively healthy, this team is going to compete atop the much improved NFC East.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs are coming off five consecutive losing seasons, all of which they finished dead last in the NFC South. That’s going to change this season, and a big reason why is second-year quarterback Jameis Winston. Winston was pretty much everything you’d expect out of a rookie QB drafted no. 1 overall: he showed flashes of a promising franchise quarterback, and also made a ton of rookie mistakes. The most promising part of his rookie campaign to me was his desire to win and compete – the intangibles you want in your starting quarterback. The Bucs went 6-10 with Winston under center and Lovie Smith as head coach. New head coach Dirk Koetter will have the pleasure of coaching Winston in his second year, who threw for over 4,000 yards and 22 touchdowns in his rookie season. The Bucs were competitive last year, but struggled closing games out. They lost three games by one score or less last season, and I expect those losses to turn into wins and the Bucs will achieve a nine win or better season.
For one, the Bucs offense should be much improved with wide receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans set to begin training camp healthy. Evans has consecutive seasons with over 1,000 yards receiving and a combined 15 touchdowns in his first two years in the NFL; Jackson is a proven reliable receiver who has put up efficient numbers his entire career in the league. Running Back Doug Martin is coming off one of his best seasons; he ran for 1,402 yards and 6 touchdowns last season. I like this offense and think Winston is in prime position to break out for a great sophomore season.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bucs need to be better. They ranked 26th in the NFL last season in points allowed. They addressed defense in the offseason by drafting CB Vernon Hargreaves III and DE Noah Spence, who will both be day-one impact starters, and signed CB Brent Grimes in free agency. They finished 22nd in the league in turnover differential (-5), and their offseason additions should help narrow that margin. The Bucs offense is going to be good, and it may take some time, but I think we’ll see a much improved Bucs team in 2016.
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